The goal is “to normalize the conversations that we know are really challenging but we also think will help to lay the foundation for how we can move forward together in the county,” said Samia Byrd, Arlington County’s chief race and equity officer.
Local governments across the nation, including in New York and Minnesota, are brainstorming ways to address racial disparities in their jurisdictions. While critics have dismissed the initiatives as vaguely defined or public relations stunts, advocates say they are a necessary step toward real policy change.
In Arlington, officials said the dialogues are part of a years-long focus on addressing equity issues, rather than a newly formulated response to racial justice demonstrations this summer in the region and throughout the country.
“This is not about just responding to the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and the protests that have existed in communities,” said Arlington County Board member Christian Dorsey (D). “This is about really fundamentally restructuring a government.”
Participants will talk about why Arlington Zip codes tend to be segregated by race and defined by socioeconomic class, Dorsey said. Other topics include disparities in health and education, and what it means to have privilege or feels like to have less of it.
Each two-hour session will have at most 48 participants. As part of the “dialogues” initiative, Challenging Racism also will compile a report for the county government by year’s end, and train community groups on how to lead their own conversations on racial equity topics.
“While we can all speculate that Arlingtonians generally understand these issues, feel a connection to these issues, feel a sense of the ability to engage with people of different races and backgrounds, and to work cooperatively with people who are different, that’s based on our intuition, and not necessarily based on any responses from our community,” Dorsey said.
Arlington County is one of the wealthiest jurisdictions in the nation, with a median household income of $117,000 for its 226,000 residents, according to the most recent census estimates. About 10 percent of residents are Black, and 16 percent are Latino.
The county already receives guidance on racial disparity issues from the Government Alliance on Race and Equity, a national network whose other members in the capital region include the District, Fairfax County and Montgomery County.
Arlington County adopted its own equity resolution in 2019, which Dorsey said set the stage for the dialogue series. Officials hope the conversations will provide direction for new policies and increase public understanding of the government’s equity-based efforts.
Arlington County Board Chair Libby Garvey (D) cited, for example, the county’s struggle to gain funding for a bus stop in Arlington Views, a predominantly Black neighborhood that is surrounded by multiple major roads, including Washington Boulevard, Columbia Pike and Interstate 395.
Garvey said a transportation official told her the stop was unjustifiably expensive because the neighborhood was hard to access. Garvey replied that the access problems were created by transportation decisions years ago that “sliced and diced” Black communities to create roads that served more affluent, mostly White neighborhoods.
“When you start to see it for what it is, then you realize, ‘Oh, we have a responsibility to make this better,’ ” Garvey said.
Arlington’s fiscal 2021 budget sets aside $100,000 to advance work related to race and equity; the county will use $83,000 for the Dialogues on Race and Equity initiative.